Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Afghan Wimbledon

Since Wimbledon is in full swing, I thought we'd do a little tennis-related post.  I love this picture, taken in 1928, of a group of royal women watching a game of tennis in Paghman, the pleasure gardens built on the edge of Kabul by the young monarch Amanullah.  During the 1920s, Amanullah had tennis courts built, and delighted in this most quintessentially English of all sports.  Exhibition matches would be played between him and his brother, with large crowds gathering to watch.      

Photos from this period are an extremely useful insight into veiling practices and 'the language of dress' in Afghanistan.  It is all too easy to see the blue burqa as somehow the 'traditional' dress of Afghanistan, something it absolutely isn't.

Our knowledge of veiling practices in Afghanistan remains extremely limited: who has worn what, where, and why remain questions almost completely unexplored across the different ethnic groups, socio-economic levels, and urban and rural areas of the country.  There has also been almost no sustained study of women in Afghanistan’s history, with the exception of Nasrine Gross’s history of the first women’s school, Malalai, written in Dari.

The cloche hats and tulle veils in this picture reveal a group of women determined to manipulate dress codes to their advantage: their hats signify an awareness of international fashions, while their diaphanous veils nod to the yashmak, prevalent at the time in Turkey and Egypt.  Beyond this, however, what their clothing is 'saying' is hard to pinpoint: is it a conservative gesture, a sign of emancipation, of their class-status, of their solidarity with each other, of their urbanity, their 'Western-ness', their fashion-consciousness?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Chinese Bird at an Afghan Picnic: Chinese Art in Afghanistan

At twenty-three, I was in the enviable/unenviable (depending on your view) position of helping to get a Timurid tile project up and running in Afghanistan.  The idea was that if the old tile-making traditions (as seen adorning such masterpieces of Islamic architecture as the Masjid Jami’ mosques in Herat and Samarqand) were supported, then Afghan craftsmen could restore their own buildings, tiles could become a source of revenue by being sold abroad, and Afghanistan could once more become a proud centre for tile-making.  Months of agonizing experimentation later, even with the help of a master tile-maker from Mazar-i Sharif, we were still little closer to perfecting the art.  It was a lot harder than it looked.
    This picture on the left is also Timurid.  It is called ‘A Prince Seated in a Garden’, and is from Iran or Central Asia.  It was made c.1425-50 (following Lentz and Lowry 1989), during the height of the Timurid dynasty’s power in Central Asia.  To someone interested in cultural borrowings, hybrids, fusions, it is a real gem.  The bird at the top of the picture is an image borrowed from the Chinese bird-and-flower painting tradition (花鳥畫)  and then implanted into a typically Timurid scene of the picnic.  This type of mixing was not uncommon; the Timurids were struck with the same kind of fever for all things Chinese which was to hit Europe in the 19th century.  To the Timurids, China was a symbol of excellence and beauty in the arts, and Timurid artists were always keen to adapt (or simply copy) Chinese designs into their own visual vocabulary. 

The picture above is a good example of the fruitful results such borrowings could produce.  The fusion of Chinese and Timurid motifs creates room for the artist’s bold experimentation with perspective and scale.  It is as if the viewer is hidden in a tree somewhere, looking down on this happy scene below.  Although both motifs are extremely conventional, when the two are put together it makes something startlingly new. 

I’ll be giving a talk on the Timurids at the British Museum this Saturday 25th at 1.15pm.  It’s free, so do come along!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chinese Sufis in Yemen

Considering the name of our blog - and its focus on the Islamicate world - we thought this book would be a fun way to start.  This text is what is known as a ratib, or an order of service, for a Sufi order in northwest China.  Although an innocuous looking thing, the arabic and chinese text on the front of the book gives a hint of the extraordinary inter-regional connections stretching right the way from Morocco to China which it represents.  The book is called the ‘Minshar’, which means ‘saw’ in Arabic; its name comes from the ‘sawing’ noise that Sufi members made while reciting dhikr out loud.

The book was lent to me by a fine scholar of Islam in China, Jonathan Lipman.  Jonathan found the text in Gansu Province in northwest China, and asked me to translate it (it is written in Arabic and Persian, as well as having a title written in Chinese on the front).  The book’s history is an exotic one, and revolves around the travels of a Chinese Muslim from the 18th century called Ma Laichi.  Although the sources conflict on exactly where he travelled, I’m pretty sure Ma Laichi travelled all the way to Yemen, and studied there with some major Sufi scholars, most likely it seems to me in the town of Zabid.  (Zabid was once a centre of religious learning; when I was last there in 2010 it was a real backwater and not the safest place to be either).

The book contains all sorts of weird and wonderful ‘drunken’ Sufi poetry, as well as passages from the Qur’an and well-known Islamic prayers.  It even has some poetry which can be matched to various poems in the ‘Dala’il al-Khayrat’ of the Moroccan Sufi al-Jazuli (d.1426).  Although we can’t be sure exactly where the book originally came from, what we can be say is that it stands as testament to a cultural world of shared ideas and texts stretching across the entire Asian landmass and into Africa.

While everyone is banging on about the rise of China and its ‘arrival’ into Africa and the Middle East, it’s worth remembering that there’s been plenty of connections between these seemingly distant parts of the world stretching back centuries – and that Islam had a big part to play in making it all happen.